Author of The Last Girls
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
by Bella Stander
Published to wide acclaim last fall, Lee Smith's latest novel, The Last Girls (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), follows four middle-aged women (and one husband) on a steamboat cruise down the Mississippi. They have convened in memory of their late classmate at a Virginia women's college, who inspired them to take a raft trip down the river in 1965. From the genial, chatty and at times wickedly funny tone of the novel, I pictured the author as fun and easy to talk with, and she does not disappoint. Reached by phone at her mountain hideaway near Boone, N.C., where she penned most of The Last Girls, Smith plunges into conversation as though I were an old friend, not just another reporter asking the usual tiresome questions. In fact, the only hitch comes from breakdowns in phone service, which causes us to resume our conversation upon Smith's return to her home in Hillsborough the next day.
Though the novel's characters are fictitious, Smith really did voyage down the Mississippi on a raft with 15 other students from all-female Hollins College in the late 1960s. "When I was going through clippings of the trip," she recalls, "I was so struck that we were referred to as 'girls.' College women today would never be referred to in those terms or in that tone. In the past 35 years, everything has changed for women," she observes. "The expectations they have when they go to college are completely different. For one thing, they all know that they will have to support themselves for at least a part of their lives. That's why I named the book 'The Last Girls,' because we were the last ones whose parents expected us to be taken care of."
Smith has a lot more to say about the differences in outlook between then and now: "The women of my generation were spoon fed the notions that you'd go to college, get a husband, be married to him forever and have these perfect children. The wife is Betty Furness, at home in her apron in the kitchen, and Dad goes off to work."
"The Sixties had not yet come to girls' colleges in Virginia, or to rural colleges anywhere in America," Smith continues. "We graduated into a world which had just suddenly changed, and there were many more possibilities, and less certainty and stability." The book's cover image, which she helped choose, "perfectly captures the moment before entering adulthood. These women are diving off into a much more liberated world, but one that's certainly harder to navigate."
Deep in the midst of her manuscript, Smith decided to take a trip on a Mississippi riverboat so her narrative would be authentic. "I had thought that I'd be writing a much more tragic novel till I took the second trip," she laughs. "That cruise was just so tacky! It had the fake Mark Twain, the lounge singer and all the things that found their way into the book"-including the married couple who, over dinner with strangers, proudly related intimate (and excruciatingly hilarious) details of the husband's recovery from prostate surgery. "You can't make up stuff like that," Smith declares with relish. "I was writing down notes during the whole trip." (She works in longhand, then rewrites with an electric typewriter; so far, her computer is only for email). "The last thing that man said to me was, 'Put me in your book now.' I said, 'You bet!'"
When Smith and her husband, syndicated columnist Hal Crowther, boarded the steamboat in Memphis, she was "struck again by how big the river is, and how we really did not know what we were doing on the raft trip. It was not the pastoral idyll I expected. It was a much riskier and more audacious journey than any of us or our parents realized. And we got too much media attention to have it be the 'real wilderness, alone on the Mississippi' thing we had anticipated." The steamboat journey wasn't what she expected either. "It was so hokey. One of the themes in the book is expectations versus reality, and how nothing is ever quite what you think. Sometimes getting what you wanted is worse than not getting it."
© 2003 Bella Stander